Who or what is the Green Man whose image is to be found carved in churches and cathedrals all over Britain and Europe?
Is he simply an historical pagan god of the woods or is there a deeper significance behind this symbolism?
As part of most May Day ‘Sweeps Festivals’ in various areas within the United Kingdom, at least one of the Morris dancers will dress in a wicker framework totally covered in leaves. Called Jack in the Green, this figure appears several times throughout the day as part of the celebrations in the British town of Rochester.
Although the dancers will probably tell you that they are continuing a custom going back hundreds of years, in fact there is no record of Jack in the Green appearing before the industrial revolution.
Similarly, although the country abounds with pubs called the Green Man, this only came into popular usage after the 1930’s.
Origins of the Green Man
In some instances the name refers to the ancient countryside or ‘greemans’ as it was called in earlier days. Again, many pub landlords will probably claim that the name is steeped in antiquity and tradition although most pub signs actually depict a picture of Robin Hood and are fairly recent in origin.
The same cannot be said about the images carved in churches and cathedrals however. Artistically he is most often sculptured in the form of a full-faced head with leaves and tendrils growing from his features and hair. Sometimes he has antlers appearing from his head; on other occasions, plants grow from within his mouth.
One of the earliest known examples of this type of foliate face is carved on a tomb in France and dates back to 400 AD.
Foliate heads are common before this date, however. Similar images appear earlier in art, stemming from ancient Greek and Roman mythology: Silvanus, the Roman god of the woods, and Dionysus (Bacchus). The ancient Celts, too, depicted their god Cernunnos with horns and leafed hair.
The most famous example of the latter is shown on the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark. Magic cauldrons formed an important part of old Celtic tales and this beautifully worked gold and silver bowl, made 100BC, would certainly been regarded as a sacred object.
The ancient Celts worshipped the land and it is possible that the true origins of the Green Man stem from this source. However, similar figures are to be found in India, ancient Babylon and Islamic art.
In medieval and later periods countless thousands of Green Men were carved and painted as part of the ornamentation of many, if not most, of the churches and other important buildings. In Chartres Cathedral, for instance, this figure is depicted in over 70 places and several examples can normally be found in nearly all old English High Streets, especially in cathedral towns.
The Green Man and Christianity
What, then, is this pre-Christian pagan figure doing in so many churches? Representations of the Green Man were used in the borders and decorations of bibles and other religious works and he is even carved, under the instruction of Michelangelo, on the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome.
One theory is that the faces were formed by non-Christian carpenters and stonemasons; the implication being that they were included without the knowledge of the Church who commissioned the building work. Yet this cannot be the case because the sheer proliferation of the carvings proves that they were there by the original intent of the designer.
It is also sometimes suggested that the images are satanic in origin, intended to frighten people away from the devil. This too is incorrect because, unlike many of the gargoyles that were carved for this specific purpose, the features of the Green Man appear friendly and are situated in places where a fiendish effigy would be inappropriate.
Historically, the 4th and 5th centuries are labelled the Dark ages for two main reasons. One is the decline of organised society after the Romans left England and the subsequent raids carried out by various warring groups; the other is that not very much is known about the period, mainly due to lack of surviving documentary evidence.
However, one event during the period did have a profound effect on our history; the conversion from the ‘Old Pagan Religion’ to Christianity. This obviously did not happen overnight and wisely the church incorporated some of the aspects of the Old Religion into the new Christian symbolism where possible.
Feast days, for example, often coincided with the old pagan festival days.
- Christmas had previously been celebrated as the Winter Solstice
- Imbolc became St Bridget’s day
- Easter is derived from an ancient Spring goddess, Eostre
- Samhain, the start of the Celtic year, became All Souls.
Retaining the old yearly partitions was a pragmatic decision because these provided the people with an intuitive calendar to divide up the seasons for agricultural purposes; times for sowing, reaping and harvesting etc. So, for a period of time the new Christian and old pagan (this word comes from the Latin and originally meant ‘of the land’) religions coexisted, quite happily together; in fact, they had much in common.
People were spiritually inclined, ready to accept the Christian teaching of life after death, and their sacred places and grottoes became the sites for churches and shrines. Traditional teachings were not dismissed immediately but rather adapted: sacred water became holy water; plants such as holly, ivy, rose, thorn and vine were symbolic to both religions.
Other examples of dual symbolism are virtually endless: the cross, birds, chalice or cup, the Moon and Sun, the Lamb and, of course, the tree (Tree of Jesse). The vesica piscis or mandorls, a boat-shaped figure formed by overlapping two circles, is a mystical representation also shared.
It was not until much later that some Christian theologians declared the antlers of Cernunnos to be the devil’s horns.
The Green Man image, previously regarded as one of many gods, became a symbol of the spirit of nature within the total creation of the one god.
In medieval, pre-Reformation days the Catholic church was politically and socially very powerful. It had its own edicts and laws which often did not coincide with those of the monarch and certainly would have touched the lives of most ordinary folk because religion played a far more significant role in everyday existence than is the case today.
Much that is taken for granted now because it is so easily explained by science must have appeared mystical or miraculous to our medieval ancestors. We know, for example, that a rainbow is formed by the refraction of light through water but what a marvel this must have seemed once. Many such natural, but at the time inexplicable, phenomena were regarded as magical or wondrous events which became embodied in plays, stories and art.
Medieval literature was largely a curious mixture of Christian belief and old pagan tales and legends. One of the most famous, Gawain and the Green Knight, incorporates the knights of King Arthur, severed heads, the Green Man and the etiquette of courtly love and flirtation, all in one story.
Another vital aspect of peoples lives was the land which, through farming, provided physical nourishment and growth; in short, survival. The image of the Green Man was associated by tradition with regeneration, rebirth and the gifts of nature. In these times the Church would have been involved with such practical, day-to-day issues as in spiritual matters for communities tended to be much smaller and people were more reliant upon one another.
The Green Man of Now
A respect for nature has always been an important part of most religions, pagan or otherwise. Communities of different people from many countries with diverse beliefs have aspired and learned to be self-sufficient by living directly from the land.
Today our intuition warns us that we are heading on a collision course with nature.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Green Man" https://englishhistory.net/folklore/the-green-man/, February 8, 2022